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On Nov. 21, 2009, a Connecticut Husky named Andre Dixon rushed unchallenged into the Notre Dame end zone to give UConn a 33-30, double-overtime victory over the vaunted Fightin’ Irish.
This, perhaps, was the lowest on-field moment in recent memory for Notre Dame. It was also a result that had the potential to impact the program’s longterm status. UConn entered the game at just 4-5, yet it embarrassed the Irish on senior day and sent South Bend into another night of hushed depression.
Coach Charlie Weis would soon be fired, but even Irish fans joined the loud chorus of critics in wondering if the program could even return to elite status, let alone do it without giving up its coveted independence.
At the same time, momentum was growing toward the creation of a four-team playoff and there was a strong sentiment that it would feature conference members only — in other words, Notre Dame needed to join a league or face irrelevance.
Flash forward to present day, when the Irish aren’t just back to being a strong, if not championship program under Brian Kelly. Their own athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, was actually one of four administrators who wrote the new proposed 12-team playoff that is expected to be enacted for the 2023 season.
No serious person still wonders if Notre Dame matters. And the playoff, by granting six at-large bids for the Irish to compete for, assures that the program has almost no reason to ever join a conference.
Much was made about how the proposal calls for only conference champions to receive top four seeds and thus first-round byes in the tournament. That means Notre Dame, no matter how good its team is, can’t get the benefit of skipping the first round where seeds 5-8 host seeds 9-12.
It was seen as a loss for Notre Dame.
It isn’t much of one though. It’s also a more than fair trade for what the Irish got out of the 12-team playoff, especially when viewed from the prism of a dozen years ago, when it was flailing about, averaging just seven victories a season across a 13-year stretch that featured three different coaches.
Back then independence, the key to the program’s elite potential, was under threat. Now it’s safe.
Start with this: Notre Dame isn’t just guaranteed access to the playoff, but unlike the BCS and four-team playoff, it isn’t required to post a 12-0 regular season to do it. A top-10 Irish team will get in.
Kelly has revitalized the program the last 11 seasons. It hasn’t been good enough to beat the kingpins of the sport such as Alabama and Clemson (few have), but it’s firmly in the next tier of programs.
The Irish have posted three perfect regular seasons under Kelly — earning them a BCS title game appearance in 2012 and playoff spots in 2018 and 2020. Had the current system been in place, the Irish would’ve added a 2015 playoff berth, when a 10-2 record would’ve yielded a No. 8 seed and a home game against Florida State.
The price to miss out on the bye into the quarterfinals on the years it was a top-four seed isn’t much. As the alternative, Notre Dame will be the playoff’s No. 5 seed and host the No. 12 seed, the weakest playoff entrant. More years than not, that team will be the champion of a Group of Five league.
While getting automatic advancement is great, the financial, recruiting and marketing momentum of a home playoff game is significant (the quarterfinals are expected to be played at neutral sites). A Notre Dame playoff game will generate a huge television audience and a hyped on-campus crowd. And if you can’t beat the No. 12 seed at home, well, you probably weren't going far in the playoff anyway.
Moreover, because Notre Dame doesn’t belong to a conference — and thus doesn’t compete in a conference championship game — its season ends on Thanksgiving weekend. It would have three weeks to prepare for the first-round opponent, then at least two-plus more before the quarterfinals, which are scheduled for New Year’s Day.
Would a team really want a five- or six-week layoff between its final regular season game and the quarterfinals? Or would it be better prepared for the quarters by taking on an opponent it should defeat, at home, and still have plenty of rest and preparation time?
Notre Dame didn't give up much by barring itself from receiving a bye. In fact, it actually might come out ahead.
Mostly though, its independence is not threatened. The reason Notre Dame is capable of fielding a high-quality program is the geographic flexibility its schedule provides. Academic standards at the school limit the recruiting pool, meaning it needs to cast its net everywhere — from Southern California to Southern Connecticut — to find the ideal mix of athlete and student. It can’t just rely on one or even two geographic areas.
Its five-game scheduling deal with the ACC provides access to the talent-rich Southeast and even up the Eastern Seaboard. Being an independent though means it can also play annually in California (either at USC or Stanford) and add marquee games in other recruiting hotbeds — from Texas, to Pennsylvania, to all over Florida.
Under Kelly, Notre Dame has played in 20 states, including nine of the 10 most populous — a trip to Ohio State in 2022 will make it 10 for 10 — and 15 of the top 20. It’s part of why he had signed recruits from 30 different states, plus the District of Columbia, over the past five years alone.
There would be significant questions about whether Notre Dame could maintain that national recruiting base if it was a full-time ACC or Big Ten member.
About the only thing that could force the Irish to join a league, though, is if they no longer had a viable path to compete for a national title. Nothing would drive away talented players like that. That’s the deal breaker.
Now the program has an even more viable path than before.
If a dozen years ago, after that depressing loss to UConn, Notre Dame’s future was in doubt, then the script — written by Kelly and Swarbrick — is now flipped. The 12-team playoff is just the final, concluding scene.
Notre Dame may never win the 12-team playoff, but the 12-team playoff is an undeniable win for Notre Dame.
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